There are the women you know. Like Amelia Earhart – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Or pioneering journalist Nelly Bly, who became the first person to travel around the world in 72 days. Then there are some lesser known names. Like Austria’s Ida Pfeiffer, who traveled alone around the world in 1847, publishing books about her adventures. Or Ireland’s Dervla Murphy, known for cycling alone through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Or Australian Kay Cottee, the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world.
Then there’s a name many in this community know, no less pioneering than any of these remarkable women. The late Evelyn Hannon, the original Journeywoman, inspired women around the world to travel on their own by making it accessible and desirable – sharing her stories, knowledge, tips and advice on what was the first women’s solo travel website.
As a tip of hat to Evelyn and a utility to new and aspiring solo travelers, we sat down with three solo travel trailblazers – all over the age of 85 – to dive into their travel tales and get their sage advice for the next generation. So, grab yourself your favourite beverage and a snack and settle in. What we’re about to share is pure gold from some Golden Ages of Travel.
On their first solo trip – and what people said about it
Nancy B, 85, took her first solo journey at the tender age of six. “My father put me on the train from Toronto to London, Ontario – a distance of about 120 miles – to visit my grandparents,” she recalls. “The dining car conductor kept me busy folding paper napkins. It was a thrilling trip, watching the world go by. I was hooked!” She had a job for two summers when she was 18 and 19 at the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta. “I was invited to join some expert climbers and spent every free moment exploring the mountains, including trail riding and climbing into Mount Assiniboine for 10 days. I sketched and painted what I saw. That whetted my appetite for more travel,” she says.
Mai, 93, was 23 when she traveled solo from her home in New York State to Florence, Italy with a letter of presentation to find a job in the fashion industry. She ended up living in Italy for 14 years – seven in Rome and another seven in Milan during her marriage. “I was a fashion designer and had done some work for Neiman Marcus. The idea was to continue in fashion,” she says. “Generally speaking, wherever I went, I had a contact. Not everyone has that. Wherever I was going, I knew somebody, which is the best way to travel. My father had a contact in Rome who picked me up at the airport and helped get me settled in Rome. I had help all the way. People were very friendly and didn’t seem to think it was strange or odd [that I was traveling alone]. I was never afraid or uncomfortable.”
Barb had a late start getting inspired to travel. She fell in love at university and waited four years for her husband to finish post-grad. “That’s when I should have traveled. Instead, I lived at home with my parents and went to a dull job. Oh, be 18 again,” she says. “After I had three children who took up all my time and energy, I began to think of my misspent youth. For our 25th anniversary in 1983, my husband gave me a return ticket to Amsterdam and a rail pass. He wanted to stop me bitching about my misspent youth.” Barb felt comfortable setting out alone, though she suspects some of her small-town neighbours thought she was looney. “My 16-year-old daughter was off to camp, and I was warning her to be careful when canoeing. Her reply was: ‘AND YOU’RE GOING OFF TO EUROPE ALONE. YOU BE CAREFUL.’ I think other women, albeit younger than 48, were traveling alone lots that year. And since that year, I hope.”
Favourite age and mode of travel
Barb favours rail, then and now, as an efficient way to explore and meet other solo travelers. “I’m not especially social on my train trips now as I have 24-hours-a-day company and not enough time to be alone,” she says. “But in other trips I have had nice conversations – once in Venice with an older woman and a young woman. Both were committed to traveling alone but happy to converse and compare notes.”
Nancy also prefers land travel, though she admits to a secret love for people watching in an airport. But for Mai, it’s all about the shipping age of old.
“I like travelling by boat to someplace, but I don’t like cruises. There was an Italian line that went every month from New York to Naples. Then from Naples you’d pick it up again and come back. And that was just great fun. You always met amazing people and you’d become friends because they came to the United States to visit or to work for a period of time. I met a lot of interesting people, diplomatic corps people, onboard ships,” says Mai. “I just liked the lifestyle onboard the ship. You could rest for a number of days on your way to Rome or Naples, you know. But nowadays, it’s the airport. I don’t like airport travel and I don’t know too many people that do.”
Best travel memory – solo or with others
Mai sought to feed her sense of adventure and glamour with experiences that sounded interesting and fun. Her ex-husband was Head of PR for Diner’s Club in Italy, and one memorable year, the couple attended Venice Film Festival and stayed just outside The Lido. “It was a beautiful, special experience,” she recalls. “We went to the Casino, which is sort of like a James Bond set-up. Everybody was so elegant in evening clothes and gambling. It was really very exciting. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to travel, enjoy it, and learn. It’s the best thing a person can do.”
Nancy, an artist, once took a solo trip to Newfoundland to paint. “One evening, a fisherman took us so close to an iceberg that we were in its path as it ‘calved’ loudly, sending off huge boulders of ice around us,” she reminisces. “Our helmsman leaned over, spiked one and brought it back to base camp. We discovered that evening that iceberg ice literally explodes in a martini!”
For Barb, her first solo trip still packs a powerful punch of memories. “I flew into Amsterdam, stayed two nights, then hit Milan in a hotel with cockroaches and left at 6 a.m. for Venice,” she says. “I fell in love with Venice. It’s always best the first time you see it. I continued on to Verona, Geneva, Paris, and other places – all in a two-week period. I learned that I was confident and could cope with any situation. For example, an older man with an official-looking hat on tried to get me to rent a room in his house. I gave him a tip for the drink he really wanted and walked away.”
The one place they’d return to right now if they could
“I’d go right back to Rome, Italy. The city itself is beautiful. Everywhere you walk, there’s a beautiful piazza,” says Mai X. “The people are just lovely in Rome. They’re warm and friendly. The climate is perfect. The beaches. It’s just a lovely lifestyle.”
Barb B. concurs. “Anywhere in Italy,” she says. “Just drop me at the ‘stazione’ and I’ll find my way from there.”
Nancy would return to the French village of Limoux and visit Le Monastere. “This is a restored monastery where the amazing meals are taken outdoors, and artists are transported daily to a different historic town to paint,” she says. “My idea of heaven.”
Their advice for new and aspiring solo travelers
- Pack light: This tip was tops among all three women.
- Be flexible: “I found that railways in Europe are the best way to travel. Even if you get off at the wrong place, if you’re alone you can stay there or leave on the next train,” says Bar. “Rigid itineraries are not a good idea.”
- Mix tried-and-true offline sources with online: “You can contact your country’s Consulate. Whatever you’re interested in, they can help you. One time I was quite sick in Rome, and I called the Consulate and they sent me over a doctor,” says Mai. “I also used the Concierge at Excelsior hotels no matter where I was. It’s their job to know what’s going on in their city. They were always great. But it’s even better when you have a contact. Sometimes your contacts in other countries can come by asking people you know at home. I did that sometimes.”
- Learn to read maps, schedules, and fine print: “Rail passes are great but read the fine print. Some trains need a reserved seat, and a trip to the station the day before is a good time to book,” says Barb. “There are agencies that will make advance train or bus arrangements before you leave. I organized a trip through Northern Spain for my party of women using a combo of trains and buses.”
- Immerse yourself in local culture – watch and learn: Mai learned to speak Italian and cook during her time in Italy. “I had a marvelous housekeeper and she was a fantastic cook, so I’d watch her make homemade pasta,” she says. “When I returned to the US, I taught Italian cooking with my friends for about two months because they were so impressed that I could make the pasta from scratch.” Her favourite dishes: A ravioli with special cheese and Abbaccio (spring lamb).
- It’s never too late: Barb’s first solo journey came at 48, and she has so appreciated every one since. “It makes one aware of oneself, one’s abilities, and ability to cope,” she says. “I travelled around Scotland and England in about 1989. I was alone in Bordeaux France for a week waiting for my husband to catch up. A bunch of drunken men pounded on my modest hotel room door, but I was able to pound back.”
- If you’re nervous, start small and local: “I feel leaving home alone is considered a solo trip,” says Nancy. “To explore the world and meet our fellow human beings is a privilege denied to most.”